Prof. Dennis Greenland FRS

Professor Dennis Greenland FRS 1930-2012 

Dennis Greenland FRS was an outstanding soil scientist who brought intellectual rigour to any activity that he engaged in and, with his wife Mary, travelled extensively to promote the need to understand soils if agricultural production were to be increased sustainably. He was President of the British Society of Soil Science from 1979 to 1980, and gave the first E W Russell Memorial Lecture at Newcastle in 1996. 

Dennis was brought up in Portsmouth and initially had plans for a career in the Royal Navy just as three generations before had done. Poor eyesight prevented this and, after an education interrupted by wartime evacuation, he won a State Scholarship to study chemistry at Christ Church College at Oxford. He graduated in 1952 with First Class Honours, but during his final year took the soil science course taught by Dr E Walter Russell which led, in turn, to his DPhil work investigating the interaction of organic materials with clay mineral surfaces – a topic that fascinated him for the rest of his life.

As with many soil scientists in those times, his first appointment was overseas. While at Oxford, Dennis had participated in a four-month expedition to the West Nile Region of Uganda which had kindled an interest in the tropics and, especially, the importance of soil properties in constraining crop yields. Shortly after marrying Mary in 1955, he took up the position of Lecturer and Research Fellow at what is now the University of Ghana in Accra. After four years of establishing the teaching and research programmes of what became, and is now, a highly successful Department of Soil Science in Africa, he moved to the Waite Agricultural Research Institute at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. There as a Lecturer, then Reader, his research activity increased dramatically as he took full advantage to work with the many gifted scientist at the neighbouring CSIRO Division of Soils. Clay mineralogy, the interactions of organic materials with clays, and the role of organic materials in aggregate formation and stability, together with field studies of how inputs of organic materials influenced soil structure were all targets for his enquiring mind.

Dennis returned to the UK as the second Professor of Soil Science (1970-1978) at the University of Reading succeeding his DPhil supervisor at Oxford, Professor Walter Russell. As the inaugural Chair, Professor Russell had developed the teaching programmes and laid the foundations for research in the new department as it emerged from the wings of agricultural chemistry, but with Dennis’ appointment research activity at Reading expanded rapidly. The recently published Strutt report questioning the structural stability of UK soils under modern farming methods was a godsend for his research interests, and commissions from the research council and government departments quickly followed. However, the lure of the tropics proved irresistible, and he was soon on the move again.

He took leave from the University to take up an invitation to become the Director of Research at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) at Ibadan, Nigeria from 1974 until 1976, and then became Deputy Director General for Research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Baňos in The Philippines in 1978 until 1987. His time at IRRI was highly successful both personally and for the Institute as he developed and nurtured an excellent programme of research in partnership with the formidable Director General, M S Swaminathan FRS. Two keen minds worked together to mould an institution that buzzed with creativity and excellent research programmes that delivered research to solve practical problems. Later Dennis wrote the comprehensive “Sustainability of Rice Farming” (1997) that drew on the experience gained from his many years in South East Asia.In 1987 he returned to the UK as Director of Research Services at CAB International (1987-1992). This was not an easy role because the organisation was short of money and radical changes were required to realise an organisation that could be sustained. Four institutes were reorganised and relocated, and CABI publishing became a more prominent force in agricultural publishing. Upon retirement in 1992 he continued to undertake a wide range of assignments including membership and chairmanship of the International Board for Soil Research and Management (IBSRAM) in Bangkok, an enquiry into the organisation of agricultural teaching and research at the University of Melbourne, and various reports for the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research particularly on how research on natural resources ought to be conducted. 

Dennis was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1994 – a fitting recognition of his intellect and achievements. He took advantage of this election to organise a meeting with Peter Nye and I that had soil science at its heart at the Royal Society in 1997; “Land resources: on the edge of the Malthusian precipice?” presaged the current re-vitalised interest in food security by a decade. 

During his career he received several awards, particularly in the United States that recognised both his contribution to the subject of soil science but also his scientific leadership. His training in analytical chemistry meant that he was rigorous in his thinking, and did not appreciate sloppiness in the thinking of others. He was among the first to appreciate that soil degradation might involve reversible and irreversible processes and, like his mentor Walter Russell, was keen to see the results of research applied to practical problems. He maintained an active interest in the careers of many of his students and was keen that his substantial collection of books should be available to future generations; they have now been distributed to the University of Reading with the majority to his first employer, the University of Ghana. 

Dennis is survived by his wife, Mary, three children Judith, Rohan and Jennifer, and seven grandchildren. 

Written by Peter Gregory, published in the December 2013 Edition of The Auger - Membership magazine of the British Society of Soil Science